Running for Office On Less Than $5,000
Bootie Hunt drove '84 Olds, slept in a shelter
WASHINGTON — Not every congressional candidate spent truckloads of money campaigning in 1996. Some, by necessity or preference, kept their total expenditures to a few thousand dollars.
To those who think money is the end-all in politics, such penny-pinching candidates are naive idealists. To those who think rampant election cash is corrupting American democracy, they are pioneering heroes.
Whatever they are, they are bucking a major trend in an era of proliferating campaign spending. Last year, an average winning Senate seat went for $3.8 million and an average seat in the House of Representatives cost $673,000.
And yet 48 congressional candidates and three Senate hopefuls waged campaigns on less than $5,000, according to recent federal election reports.
Who are these people? And do they have a firm grasp of reality?
They include folks like Kevin Meara, a congressional hopeful in New Jersey, Henry Boyd, who ran for Congress in Mississippi, and James (Bootie) Hunt, who ran for Senate in Mississippi.
They all share one common characteristic: A belief that a candidate's ideas are more important than the amount of money in a campaign war chest. They share something else too. They all lost on election day. What's surprising is that the three candidates each managed respectable showings, each winning more than 25 percent of the vote.
Two cents per vote
Bootie Hunt's major campaign expense in his run for the US Senate was gasoline money for a borrowed 1984 Oldsmobile. Overall he spent $4,700 and pulled in 235,990 votes, roughly 27 percent of the total. It works out to a highly efficient cost of 2 cents per vote.
"I set two records," Mr. Hunt says. "I am the first man to run for the US Senate with only a high school education, and I've gotten more votes for less money than any candidate that's ever run."
Hunt's problem wasn't just convincing voters to support him. The leadership of Mississippi's Democratic Party disowned him after he beat the party's candidate in the Democratic primary. Hunt, a retired farmer and factory worker of modest means, received no party money in his Senate bid. He was even shunned by the national Democratic Party.
"I called the Democratic National Committee to get money,'' recalls campaign manager Shawn O'Hara. "You know what they did? They switched me over to the Republican National Committee."
And that's not all. Hunt, a fierce Clinton loyalist, wasn't even invited to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
So the candidate took a Greyhound bus to Chicago. He stayed in a homeless shelter because he couldn't afford a hotel room. But he never did get to see his favorite president accept the nomination. Without an invitation, Hunt was turned away at the front door.
That's when the local media in Mississippi started paying attention to Bootie Hunt. It was the kind of news story that couldn't be ignored. Mr. O'Hara says there are two keys to waging an effective campaign on a bare-bones budget. First, the candidate must talk to as many voters as possible at every opportunity. Second, the candidate must be taken seriously by local media.
"The news media, they are the ones who make you or break you," O'Hara says. "If you have the connections and the credibility with the newspapers you can win elections. But you've also got to get out and talk to the people."
Hunt was outspent by incumbent Republican Sen. Thad Cochran 176 to 1. But he never stopped campaigning. Now he plans to run again in 2000 against Mississippi's other senator, Trent Lott, the Republican majority leader of the Senate.
When Kevin Meara decided to challenge a 15-year incumbent congressman in New Jersey's Fourth Congressional District, he knew he would face an uphill fight.
Outspent 81 to 1, Meara says he campaigned the old-fashioned way, with a handshake and face-to-face contact with voters. But because of his rule that no contributions over $100 would be accepted, Meara says the local media did not take his shoestring campaign seriously enough to give him the kind of newspaper, radio, and TV exposure he needed to be competitive.
"If you are not spending money on airtime to tell your position on the issues and your opponent refuses to debate you, no one knows who you are regardless of how many miles you put on your van and how many voters you touch," he says.
But Meara must have done something right. He outpaced other Democratic challengers who spent considerably more money running for the same seat in prior elections. Meara spent $3,500 and won 33 percent of the vote, almost 76,000 individual votes.
"If the media agreed to conduct congressional debates and give free air time then we feel we could have won the election," Meara says.
Outspent 436 to 1
When Marion Jacob announced his run for Congress in Texas' 24th District, he put out word that he wouldn't accept any campaign contributions. He didn't want any of the entanglements that come with mixing politics and money. Overall he spent about $4,500 of his own money and placed a distant third in the race with 3 percent of the vote. He was outspent 436 to 1.
Mr. Jacob says anyone thinking about running a low-cost campaign should start early. He figures a serious candidate should plan on spending at least $15,000. "You could then have some fairly slick brochures printed that could be distributed by an organization of unpaid volunteers," he says.
Henry Boyd is a paralegal at a legal services organization in Oxford, Miss. He spent $3,000 running in that state's First Congressional District. Despite being outspent 175 to 1, he won 30 percent of the vote - 55,200 ballots.
Mr. Boyd says that unlike the incumbent congressman he ran against, he decided to accept only a few small campaign contributions from residents of his district.
He sees the current system of campaign finance as a form of corruption. "You cannot represent the people knowing a man has given you $100,000 and will expect you to do things," he says. "I made a decision to not get involved in that type of politics."
Boyd adds, "If enough people like myself get together then all this corruption that is going on, we can put a stop to it."